Suddenly, along a stretch of otherwise unremarkable road in Oldsmar, several restaurants have sprung up, making hanging out at a strip mall fairly hip. Both Rumba and Salt Rock Tavern are routinely packed at 3689 Tampa Road. The former offers karaoke and good beer, while the latter offers an American menu and good beer. In May, Hot Tuna joined the group. The sushi restaurant offers a popular and excellent sushi happy hour, as well as a variety of Japanese dishes. While the young professionals have definitely discovered it — we saw them coupled and in large groups on all our visits — it's still new enough that we didn't have to wait for a table. On the other hand, we did have to search for parking. It took us longer to find a parking spot than it did to get a table. So here's the first tip: prepare to park around back and walk to Hot Tuna, passing through the outside seating area at Salt Rock Tavern.
Inside, Hot Tuna features modern décor. Customers are greeted by a friendly hostess and immediately seated — you have a choice of tables, booths or the sushi bar. The black-clad wait staff was friendly and quick with the water refills on all of our visits. Much like Sushi Alive in Northdale, which is owned by the same family, Hot Tuna has a similar concept, but with better desserts. For the price conscious or very hungry, the early happy hour Monday through Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. features $4 classic rolls, $1 nigiri and $2 shashimi. For the thirsty, deals are from 8 p.m. to closing, including 2-for-1 sake-sangrias and sake-tinis, $2 house wines, $2 domestic and $3 import beers, plus half-priced appetizers. The menu offers a nice variety of appetizers, sushi, cooked entrees and desserts without being unwieldy or overwhelming. For appetizers, we recommend the braised sirloin negimaki. It's a tender strip of sirloin rolled nori style around a filling of asparagus, mushrooms and carrots, and then coated with a teriyaki glaze. Also good is the tempura shrimp and vegetables, which arrived crispy without being greasy, and is served with a ginger-laden dipping sauce. The Gyoza, traditional Japanese pork dumplings served with a sesame ponzu dipping sauce, come either steamed, pan seared or fried. The entrée selection offers the expected teriyakis and tempuras but also lists a number of meat choices. But instead of the New York sirloin, filet mignon or panko-crusted and deep-fried pork chops, we suggest the short ribs Korean style. The grilled tender beef ribs are coated in a sauce that is more spicy than sweet, and served with pickled kimchi. When we go to a sushi restaurant, we want sushi. Hot Tuna delivers. Freshness is the key to great sushi, and Hot Tuna came through on all of our visits. The classic sushi rolls, which had an acceptable seafood-to-rice ratio, were rolled tight and presented with care. The signature rolls relied heavily on cooked ingredients but were a feast for the senses, offering a beautiful combination of colors, textures and flavors in each bite. For those who crave spicier sushi, the Scorpion Roll includes crab claw, cucumber, avocado and tempura shrimp and is topped with tuna, thinly sliced fresh jalapeño and a spicy aioli. The Paper Crane roll features spicy tuna, atomic aioli, spring mix, cucumber and daikon wrapped in thin rice paper and drizzled with sesame-chili oil. For those who like their sushi sweet, the Hawaii Five-O roll includes tempura shrimp, cream cheese, sweet potato fries and asparagus, and is topped with mango, avocado and tempura chips and drizzled with coconut marmalade. At most sushi restaurants — at most restaurants, actually — it's advisable to simply skip dessert. The desserts at Hot Tuna, while not out of this world, were surprisingly good. We'll start with the disappointment — the fried banana split sundae, which consisted basically of banana slices wrapped in wonton skins and deep fried, then served aside a scoop of vanilla ice cream, with some squirts of whipped cream and a drizzle of peanut butter and chocolate sauce. Better was the Chocolate Pyramid, a dulce de leche mousse with tiny bits of poached pears atop a thin sponge cake. Or if you have to go fried, try the Tempura Philly Cheesecake, which is exactly what it sounds like: a slice of frozen cheesecake dipped in batter and deep fried. Overall, Hot Tuna exceeded our expectations and offers residents of the growing Oldsmar area a good choice if they have a craving for sushi. And doesn't everyone, eventually?
Hot Tuna review
Bottom Line: Good weekday happy hour deals on fresh sushi and drinks served in an upmarket atmosphere
Where: 3689 Tampa Road, #3028, Oldsmar
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday, noon to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday